Table of Contents
On STS-89 we head up to Mir to retrieve Dave Wolf and drop off Andy Thomas. Along the way we’ll relax by looking at some fish, mind our checklists, and wonder why the airlock hatch is stuck again.
Episode Audio #
Post-Flight Presentation #
If you’d like to see the mission in motion you can check out the post-flight presentation here:
NOTE: This transcript was made by me just copying and pasting the script that I read to make the podcast. I often tweak the phrasing on the fly and then forget to update the script, so this is not guaranteed to align perfectly with the episode audio, but it should be pretty close. Also, since these are really only intended to be read by myself, I might use some funky punctuation to help remind myself how I want a sentence to flow, so don’t look to these as a grammar reference. If you notice any egregious transcription errors or notes to myself that I neglected to remove, feel free to let me know and I’ll fix it.
Hello, and welcome to The Space Above Us. Episode 175, Space Shuttle flight 89, STS-89: The Last of the Mir 7
Last time, we covered the accidentally-more-exciting-than-planned flight of STS-87. The science team behind SPARTAN were bummed to miss out on an opportunity to study the Sun from space, but in return we exposed some potential holes in training and in cockpit process, and we got an exciting improvised and manual capture of the wayward spacecraft. Today, things will go more according to plan, as we deliver the final NASA astronaut to live onboard the Russian space station Mir.
Making the voyage would, for once, not be Space Shuttle Atlantis. OV-104 was headed for an extended break as part of an OMDP, or Orbiter Maintenance Down Period. Replacing it is another orbiter back from its own OMDP, OV-105, Space Shuttle Endeavour. We haven’t seen Endeavour since STS-77, which among other things tried out the delightfully weird Inflatable Antenna Experiment, around a year and a half ago. While it was gone it underwent routine maintenance along with 63 modifications. Some of these modifications were pretty minor, stuff like replacing some of the flexible insulation blankets with nomex felt, or replacing some aluminum foil tape with aluminized Kapton tape, both of which would save just a little bit of weight. But there were also some pretty significant changes. One was removing Endeavour’s Extended Duration Orbiter, or EDO, capability.
EDO, again was a combination of different systems that could greatly extend the length of a shuttle mission. Inside the cabin there was the Regenerative Carbon Dioxide Removal System, which used some clever chemistry to absorb and vent carbon dioxide generated by the metabolism of the crew. Outside, in the very back of the payload bay, was a large pallet with seven big tanks of hydrogen and oxygen, increasing the supply of fuel cell reactants, and thus the supply of electricity, and thus the maximum length of a mission. Columbia has the same system and has been making great use of it, but Endeavour was the only other orbiter to use EDO, and even then it was just the one flight, on STS-67. This is just me speculating, but it seems to me that EDO was sort of a relic from the late 80s when there seemed to be a thought that if orbiter missions could just get longer and longer then maybe there wouldn’t even be a need for a space station. Remember that crazy talk about shuttle missions potentially lasting several months? Yeah, well, that’s all done now. With the ISS nearly upon us there was little need for such long missions, and that EDO stuff is heavy, so out it goes.
The most obvious change, however, was removal of the middeck airlock and installation of an external airlock in the payload bay. I’m not actually sure if it was literally the same airlock or not, but I believe it was separate. But you know the drill, if I’m wrong, please email me, email@example.com. Moving Endeavour’s airlock out into the payload bay both freed up tons of room down on the middeck and also allowed the use of the Orbiter Docking System, giving Endeavour the ability to dock with Mir or the ISS. For now, the airlock was mounted a little further back in the payload bay than was typical later in the program, both to give a little extra clearance for today’s Mir docking and to provide the upcoming STS-88 crew with a better view as they mated the first two elements of the ISS.
All told, the effort cost around 40 million dollars in 1998 money, which was actually around 7.7 million dollars and 11 days under budget. Good job, OMDP crew! And as a nice measure of just how much effort went into working on the orbiter, these changes took 490,479 human hours, or around 56 years. It’s a good thing it’s a team effort, otherwise it would’ve been a long wait for a lone technician to finish their work.
But now that its upgrades were complete, Endeavour was raring to get back into space, so lets meet the crew that will fly it there.
Commanding this flight was Terry Wilcutt, flying as commander for the first time. When we last saw Wilcutt, he was the Pilot on STS-79, which just like today’s flight was a Mir taxi service. But instead of dropping off Thomas and picking up Wolf like he’d be doing today, he dropped off John Blaha and picked up Shannon Lucid. This is Wilcutt’s third of four flights.
Joining Wilcutt up front is today’s Pilot, Joe Edwards. Joe Edwards Jr was born on February 3rd, 1958 in Richmond, Virginia, though he grew up in Alabama. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the United States Naval Academy, and later picked up a Master’s in Aviation Systems from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In between those two events he became a naval aviator and test pilot, flying the F-14, including the first Navy flight of the F-14D. It was with the Navy that he had an extraordinary flight that makes the risks of spaceflight seem almost tame in comparison. On November 13th, 1991, Edwards and his Radar Intercept Officer Scott “Grundy” Grundmeier, were flying an F-14B with Fighter Squadron 142, “Ghost Riders”, off of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. At a speed of mach 0.9 and an altitude of 8500 meters, just a few hundred meters lower than the summit of Mt. Everest, a corroded latching mechanism failed and fell into the ocean. This was very bad because the latch was holding the radome onto the front of the F-14. The radome is the pointy bit at the front of the aircraft that protected the fighter’s radar. Get it? It’s a dome for radar. Radome. Anyway, the radome came unlatched and before departing the aircraft entirely it flipped completely over, smashing the angle of attack probe into the F-14’s canopy.. and into Edwards. Edwards suffered a broken right collarbone, glass in his eyes leading to multiple serious lacerations, and his oxygen hose was yanked out without him realizing it. Somehow, despite the wind, the nearly non-existent view out the front of the canopy, the lack of oxygen, or the lack of comms , he got the plane back to the carrier, and flew alongside it at deck level with his tail hook down, communicating that he needed to land. The carrier turned into the wind, and squinting through the shattered canopy, Edwards somehow landed his F-14 safely on the deck. I’m sure he’s done a lot of other stuff since then, but.. wow, what else do we need? Three years later he was selected as an astronaut and this is his only spaceflight.
Moving back in the flight deck we find someone who’s hoping that Pilot Edwards has gotten all his aviation bad luck out of his system, Mission Specialist 1, JR Reilly. James Reilly was born on March 18th, 1954 at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho but considers Mesquite, Texas to be home. He earned a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate all in Geosciences, and all from the University of Texas-Dallas. As you may have guessed, Reilly is pretty interested in Geology, performing research in Antarctica, becoming an oil and gas exploration geologist, and eventually working his way up to Chief Geologist of the Offshore Region for Enserch Exploration Incorporated before being selected as an astronaut in 1994. Put another way, I think we’ve finally answered the age-old question of whether or not oil drillers can become astronauts. This is Reilly’s first of three flights.
Moving to Reilly’s left we find Mission Specialist 2, Mike Anderson. Michael Anderson was born on December 25th, 1959 in Plattsburgh, New York, but grew up in Spokane Washington. I guess he always had his sights set on the stars because he earned a Bachelor’s in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Washington, and later a Master’s in physics from Creighton University. In between those degrees he joined the Air Force, serving as the Chief of Communication Maintenance for the 2015th Communication Squadron, and as the Director of Information System Maintenance for the 1920th Information System Group. He learned how to fly at the Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma and began flying the Strategic Air Command’s EC-135 flying command post known as “Looking Glass”. So in the case of an all-out nuclear attack on the United States, he’d be the guy flying the president’s command post. He also served as an aircraft commander and instructor pilot with the 920th Air Refueling Squadron. In an oral history interview, Commander Wilcutt noted that Anderson brought with him an expertise in cockpit resource management from his background flying large aircraft with the Air Force. And as we learned last time, CRM is an important skill to emphasize. Anderson was selected as an astronaut in 1994 and this is his first of two flights, but sadly that second flight was STS-107, making him the second of three spaceflight veterans from that crew we will meet.
Moving down to the middeck, we find a very familiar face, Mission Specialist 3 and today’s Payload Commander, Bonnie Dunbar. Bonnie Dunbar is flying in space for the 5th time on this mission, but her first mission was STS-61A, the German Spacelab D-1 flight all the way back in the pre-Challenger days. I also want to mention that one of her crewmates on that flight was Wubbo Ockels just cause it’s a great excuse to say Wubbo Ockels again. When we last saw Dunbar it was on STS-71, the first shuttle flight to dock with Mir, as we went to give Norm Thagard and his Russian crewmates a ride home. This makes sense because Dunbar actually trained as Thagard’s backup, way back when the whole Shuttle-Mir thing was just going to be a single astronaut. Well, she’s back at Mir for this, her fifth and final flight.
Joining Dunbar on the middeck is Mission Specialist 4, Salizhan Sharipov. Salizhan Shakirovich Sharipov was born on August 24th, 1964 in Uzgen, a city in the Oshsk region of what is now Kyrgyzstan. He graduated from the Soviet Union’s Air Force Pilot School in 1987, becoming an instructor pilot while flying the MiG-21 and L-39 aircraft. In 1990 he was selected to become a cosmonaut, training to be a Mir commander. I’m not sure if it’s related to the view out the window from space, but shortly after becoming a cosmonaut he picked up a degree in cartography from Moscow State University. When he was training to serve on Mir, somehow I don’t think he expected to be arriving on Space Shuttle Endeavour. This is his first of two spaceflights, with his second being a lengthy stay on the ISS.
And finally, our payload–ahem, guest of honor for today’s mission, Andy Thomas. We know Thomas from Endeavour’s previous flight, STS-77, with that wacky inflatable antenna experiment. Since he’ll be replacing Dave Wolf on Mir, we’ll have plenty of time to get to know him better next episode, but this is his second of four flights.
The launch was rescheduled a little later in the month both to give the Mir crew a little more time to finish their work and to give NASA technicians time to repair some of Endeavour’s thermal protection tiles, but when launch day rolled around the countdown proceeded nice and smoothly. As the main engines roared to life seconds before liftoff, it was the first operational use of the new Block IIA engines. Marshall Space Flight Center had been continuing to work on improving the main engines, squeezing extra performance out of these engineering marvels. An upgraded high pressure fuel turbopump was proving more difficult than other upgrades planned for the Block II engine, so Block IIA was basically the Block II, but it kept the older turbopump. Even with part of the upgrade missing, the new engine could provide an additional half percent of rated thrust, delivering an extra 225 kilograms of payload.
On January 22nd, 1998 at 9:48 and 15 seconds PM Eastern Standard Time, Endeavour’s SRBs joined the upgraded SSMEs in igniting and the entire stack leapt off the pad. Ascent was nominal, but the SRBs landed in some pretty nasty weather and couldn’t be picked up for several days. By the time they were picked up they had been damaged enough to require around 7 million dollars worth of repairs, so there go most of the savings from Endeavour’s efficient OMDP. Oh well.
The only item of note during the ascent was the fact that the 4 inch liquid hydrogen connection between the orbiter and external tank took nearly 12 seconds to close, which is around 10 times longer than normal. It actually only closed thanks to a backup mechanical system which engaged as the umbilical plate separated, allowing the closure of the umbilical doors. The closure of these doors was absolutely critical, since otherwise there would be two massive openings in the belly of the orbiter, so as usual, backup systems were a good idea. Unfortunately, the external tank itself wasn’t illuminated by sunlight right after separation, so by the time photos could be taken of it the tank was already pretty far away, limiting the ability to analyze the state of its foam insulation, but Endeavour would come back with far less damage than STS-87, so it seemed that attempts to improve the foam shedding problem were maybe helping.
Also, it turns out that the external tank umbilical doors weren’t the only doors in danger of getting stuck. As the crew drifted down the tunnel into the SPACEHAB module occupying the payload bay they found that the hatch out of the airlock would only open a few inches. Oh boy, we don’t have another stuck hatch do we? Well, we do, but this was a lot easier to fix. It turns out it was just some equipment bags and an air duct in the way. I’m not entirely sure how this got missed by the folks on the ground, but apparently the airlock had been configured for use at the ISS and not Mir.. but I also don’t understand why the ISS is allowed to have its hatch blocked, so clearly I’m missing something with my mental picture of this hatch problem. In any case, the crew were able to move the bags and disconnect the air duct, swinging the hatch open with no further problems.
The primary focus of this mission was the crew swap and the transfer of a few tons of equipment to and from Mir, but as always, we’ve got a decent amount of science making the trip. One item is something we’ve seen a number of times now, ASTROCULTURE. This is that experiment that aimed to grow plants in space and had a somewhat ridiculously incremental development cycle, flying on multiple missions and testing one small system at a time. But hey if they had the flights to test with, I guess I can’t fault them for being cautious. This time ASTROCULTURE would be remaining for the long haul, transferring to Mir for the duration of Andy Thomas’ stay, so I guess all those incremental tests paid off.
The Mechanics of Granular Material experiment, which flew on STS-79, was also back, using the microgravity environment to study the behavior of stuff like sand and dirt, which is more complex than you might think. One particular behavior of interest was liquefaction, which is where a wet granular material can be shaken in such a way that it begins to behave like a fluid. This is fun in home science experiments, but considerably less fun when the shaking is due to an earthquake and it’s your house sitting on the now-fluid-like dirt.
KidSat was back! But for some reason it was called EarthKAM now. But they can’t trick me, they didn’t even change the URL, it still says KidSat in it, right there, in both the subdomain and path. This is that fun little experiment where a digital camera was mounted in the orbiter’s windows and students on the ground could coordinate with NASA to send up camera commands, snapping photos of the Earth below and beaming them back down to the students. For some reason it’s always deactivated during docked operations, from which I can only surmise that NASA has forbidden children from looking at Mir. Or something.
Something that could also vaguely be considered a digital camera, sort of, was a fancy x-ray sensor which was designed for use in x-ray crystallography. You know all those crystals we are forever growing up in space? Well, as soon as they get back, scientists shoot x-rays through them in order to learn about the molecular structure of the crystals, and thus the structure and thus the behavior of the proteins. Well, what if that analysis could be done right on orbit? The crystal growing technique could be evaluated and tweaked all without needing to go back and forth between orbit and the surface of the Earth with each iteration. With that in mind, this sensor was being flown to see how it performed in the increased radiation present in low earth orbit.
Lastly, the crew evaluated a new telemedicine apparatus. The equipment included a camera, electronic stethoscope, ECG, instruments to measure blood pressure and oxygen and so on. It would take all this data and beam it down to the ground for review by the flight surgeon. It sounds to me like it’s basically an upgraded version of the biomedical monitoring stuff the astronauts in the Apollo era wore. So we’ve finally achieved the early astronauts’ nightmare: bringing the flight surgeon along for the ride.
But as I said, the real point of this flight was to get to Mir, so I suppose we should get to Mir. The far field rendezvous had no problems, with Endeavour in a slightly lower orbit and quickly catching up behind the Russian space station. For parts of the approach, Pilot Joe Edwards sat in the Commander’s seat, while Mission Specialist Bonnie Dunbar sat in the Pilot’s seat, with the two of them taking turns punching in commands for burns and verifying each others’ work.
Several sources went out of their way to mention that this was a notable rendezvous since Endeavour approached in a nose-forward attitude instead of the tail-forward approach we’re used to. The nose-forward attitude was what was planned for the ISS, so it was being tried out here on Mir, even if the tail-forward method provided slightly better communications. But as I read this I confused why this was such a big deal since I was 100% sure that we’d seen the nose-forward approaches before. But it turns out, as always, there is some nuance here. When Atlantis approached Mir in a nose-forward attitude, it was back on STS-71 and STS-74, which both used the older “Stable Orbit” approach. This is where the terminal part of the rendezvous is kicked off with a burn targeting a big swoop downwards, rising up directly to Mir. But the last time we were here, on STS-86, we switched to the Optimized R-bar Targeted Rendezvous, abbreviated to “ORBT” just to confuse people learning about it in an audio medium. With ORBT, instead of targeting Mir itself, the shuttle targeted the big swoop such that it ended at a point a few hundred meters underneath Mir, on the R-bar. This saved a little propellant since it was no longer necessary to switch the target from Mir to the point on the R-bar during the terminal approach. So that’s why this approach was notable. It was a nose-forward ORBT (O-R-B-T) approach.
And since the final shuttle visit to Mir would return to tail-forward, that makes this rendezvous unique in the Shuttle-Mir program, as the only nose-forward optimized R-bar approach. So if you ever want some really really esoteric space trivia, there you go.
As Endeavour inched its way up the R-bar, a clearly excited Dave Wolf could be seen waving from Mir’s windows, while spinning around in somersaults. Bonnie Dunbar teased him over the radio saying “We’re just discussing the fact that maybe Andy forgot his suitcases and we might have to take him back.”
But no suitcases were forgotten, and after a picture perfect final approach, Endeavour made contact with Mir, around 41-and-a-half hours after lifting off. Hatch opening was slightly delayed when pressurization of the vestibule, the area between Mir and Endeavour’s hatches, revealed the presence of a significant air leak. After checking the configuration of the valves in the vestibule it was discovered that three out of four were open, letting the air out. These valves were supposed to be closed during preflight checks but apparently that step wasn’t actually on the checklist and was forgotten. No problem though, the valves were closed, the ground checklist was later updated, and one more small lesson learned was added to the records.
With the hatch opening came all the usual celebrations and gift exchanges. The shuttle crew came bearing notebooks, pens, Swiss army knives with the shuttle emblem on them, chocolate space shuttles, and perhaps the favorite gift of all long-haul space travelers: fresh fruit. Specifically, oranges.
As always, the first order of business after the initial greetings was to get the new Mir crew member checked out on the Sokol launch and entry suit and install his Soyuz seat liner. But when Andy Thomas tried to put his suit on, he found that it somehow didn’t fit. He struggled to pull the suit up over his shoulders. He speculated that they may not have properly accounted for just how much his spine would stretch in weightlessness, but Russian program leaders bristled at the very idea that they had made a mistake. Regardless of how it happened, the suit didn’t fit, so for that first day, Thomas remained a member of the shuttle crew, and Wolf remained a member of the Mir crew.
As one possible solution, Thomas tried on Wolf’s suit, and found he was able to put it on, but when it was pressurized his hands couldn’t even make it down into the gloves. Thomas, Wolf, and Solovyev went to work doing a little space suit surgery, tightening some internal straps and loosening or cutting others, and eventually Wolf’s suit was made to fit Thomas’ frame. With his safe ride back to Earth ensured, Andy Thomas officially transitioned to the Mir crew, and Wolf moved over to the shuttle, presumably somersaulting the whole way over.
While the Sokol suit situation was remedied, the rest of the crew continued their work. There were literally tons of equipment to move back and forth across the hatch, and only a few short days to do it. Under the watchful eye of Payload Commander Dunbar, 3600 kilograms of equipment, supplies, and 16 big bags of water were sent over to Mir. There was also a replacement air conditioner that was notable for being the heaviest Mir payload swapped out while the shuttle was on the pad. Arriving only two weeks before launch, Kennedy Space Center technicians carefully moved the air conditioner into SPACEHAB just 5 days before liftoff. Considering that it weighed 82 kilograms, and SPACEHAB was vertical, this was a fairly tricky task, so well done to the folks on the ground.
In an oral history interview, Dunbar talked about how important it was to pay extreme attention to the details in this role, always consulting with her copy of the flight plan to ensure she knew what was where and when. The other copy was left floating on a hook so each crew member could check off what they had done and crucially, how long it took. It seems obvious after the fact, but Dunbar pointed out that recording task durations and relaying them to the ground was critical because otherwise.. how would they know? The best they would be able to do is try to replicate the task on the ground, perhaps with a technician who was intimately familiar with their slice of the mission and who was aided by gravity. The story could be very different for a crew member who had to train on all parts of the flight and was still getting used to moving around in weightlessness. By noting how long stuff took to do, plans for future flights would be more realistic, allowing more to get reliably done.
One experiment I didn’t mention earlier kind of cracked up but I feel bad for laughing. The Closed Equilibrated Aquatic System, or CEBAS, which might be a pun, but was definitely a payload being flown by the German space agency and was essentially a zero-gravity aquarium. The goal was to hatch some fish and allow scientists to study the development of vertebrates in weightlessness. Even setting aside the science, this is already a little interesting since it this means that German payloads were flown on Dunbar’s first and last missions. But the reason I bring it up is that in an oral history interview, Commander Wilcutt mentioned how the experiment was a favorite with the crew. There was a small window on its side that they could use to check in on the fish and see how they were doing. Wilcutt said he enjoyed watching them float around in there, mentioning how, according to him, studies had shown that looking at aquariums was relaxing enough to actually lower blood pressure and heart rate. He also said he noticed other members of the crew looking for longer than was strictly necessary to just check in on the fish, enjoying the view of the little fish swimming by in various orientations.
But here’s the thing.. according to Wilcutt, they later discovered that all the fish had actually died shortly into the mission! The “swimming” they were enjoying was actually just the fish being pushed around by the little water pump. The reason I laughed so hard at this was that Wilcutt said that despite the truth behind the fish, quote “we surely enjoyed watching them regardless.”
For the fish lovers out there, the STS-89 mission report actually says that the experiment worked nominally throughout the flight, which doesn’t necessarily mean the fish were fine, but still. So I think you can choose to believe that the fish escaped unscathed, or Commander Wilcutt’s memory is slipping. The choice is yours and yours alone, choose wisely.
Five days sounds like a long time, but I’m sure it passed in the blink of an eye for the crew, and soon it was time to say goodbye and depart the Russian space station. For Mission Specialist Bonnie Dunbar it was an especially difficult departure. Back on STS-71 she had been crewmates with Anatoly Solovyev, who had been catching a ride to Mir for his previous long duration flight, so the two were very friendly. And Dunbar had also trained on Mir’s systems as Norm Thagard’s backup. So she was very familiar with the station and friends with its commander. The ground apparently picked up on this, double checking which side of the hatch Dunbar was on when it was sealed. She radioed down that unfortunately, she was on the Shuttle side. Oh well.
At a mission elapsed time of just over 6 days and 14 hours, with around 4 days and 20 hours of docked operations, the docking system latches retracted, Endeavour pulsed its thrusters, and the orbiter backed away. Once at a safe distance, Pilot Joe Edwards took the controls, performing a slow flyaround of the station, before finally blipping the thrusters to lower their orbit and move ahead, leaving Mir as a bright point of light behind them.
After an uneventful reentry and landing at the Kennedy Space Center, Space Shuttle Endeavour’s 12th flight came to a close, adding 8 days, 19 hours, 45 minutes, and 54 seconds to its running total, and adding around 5.8 million kilometers to the odometer. When ground technicians approached the shuttle and opened the hatch, Wolf narrated with “And the hatch is open! Oh, the smell … and the air from the Earth.” After 18 weeks in space, it was time to breathe deep.
Before we go, we have two more quick fun stories courtesy of STS-89 Pilot Joe Edwards. In an interview he talked about how shortly after returning to Earth he was sipping some lemonade out of a paper cup when he decided to reach down and pull off his shoes. Naturally, he just let go of the cup in mid-air, which promptly dropped to the ground. Whoops. Welcome back to gravity.
Another Edwards story kind of puts things in perspective. Later that year a number of astronauts were gathered for the sad occasion of saying their final farewells to America’s first space man: Alan Shepard. Like at all social situations, the people naturally congregated with their in-groups, with the old timers mostly sticking together and the new shuttle folks mostly sticking together in their own group. Edwards, talking to his fellow Shuttle astronauts, mentioned how it was a shame that they had all been born too late to fly to the moon on Apollo, but to soon to fly to Mars on the first human Mars mission. Right at that moment, almost as if summoned, Jim Lovell walked over from the Gemini and Apollo group to chat with his younger colleagues. Lovell said how he, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Gene Cernan had all just been chatting about how they had been born too early. The shuttle astronauts got to fly the first reusable spacecraft and would get to assemble a space station on orbit, while all they ever got to do was Apollo. So I guess even in space, the grass is always greener on the other side.
Next time.. for one last time, we’ll follow a Mir long-hauler across the hatch and learn the twists and turns of their mission as we navigate the sometimes darkened and cluttered twists and turns of Mir itself.
Ad Astra, catch you on the next pass